Tilpa’s two pubs and the big drinking shearers

tilpa hotel today
Tilpa Hotel, Tilpa NSW. Picture: Tilpa Hotel Facebook Page.
edward perrott
Edward Perrott, who built the Royal Hotel, Tilpa.

THE pub at Tilpa in far west NSW has more than a century of stories under its belt; although none can top the one about the man who built the single storey tin and timber wayside stop, late in the 19th century.

Known to have regularly taken a strap to his wife and young women servants, Edward Montgomery Perrott was a wealthy grazier, who owned and operated the sheep property, Rosedale Station, near Tilpa.

Perrott built the Royal Hotel at Tilpa, on the Darling River about 900km north-west of Sydney, in 1894.

Tilpa already had a pub when the 30-year-old grazier slapped together his jerry-built watering hole to cater for the region’s big drinking shearers in 1894.

Perrott’s Royal Hotel joined the quaintly named Wee Water Hotel, which was established almost 30 years previous, by 46-year-old James Buckley.

This is the story of Tilpa’s two pubs – the Royal and the Wee Water.

Let’s start with the Wee Water.

Born in London, Buckley came to Australia as a young man seeking his fortune on the Bendigo gold diggings. Before arriving in Tilpa to open the Wee Water Hotel in January 1877, he had kept a bakery at Wilcannia.

After a couple of years at the Wee Water, Buckley, with his wife and children, left in 1881 to establish another pub near Bourke – the East Tooralo Hotel, which he ran for 15 years. Tilpa’s first publican died in Bourke in 1913 at the age of 72.

The Wee Water’s most notorious host was former mounted trooper, Henry Skipper, who took over the running of the pub when he married the widow of publican John Huffman.

Skipper was born in Deniliquin, and came to Bourke in the middle of the 1880s as a mounted trooper. Later he was in charge of a police station at Bellcolligy, between Compadore and Curranyalpa, about 130km from Cobar. He resigned from the police force in 1885 to take over the Wee Water Hotel, after marrying the proprietress, Mary Luffman, a widow, who had a young family.

The Skipper family did it tough trying to make a living, according to a newspaper correspondent who visited the Wee Water Hotel in October 1892. The Bacchus Marsh reported:

I fell over two or three wet embankments, and stuck my head through a wire fence trying to find my way out and around to H. Skipper’s Weewater hotel. It is the only hotel here, and Admans’s large store the only store. I soon learned that bad navigation, and heavy freights were worse than the vilest protection for putting prices up. A nine pence bottle of ‘English Pale Ale’ is only worth two shillings at Skipper’s and he’s out of supplies at those figures. He’s been looking for cargo for weeks. Admans, too, has to stand on a chair in order to mark his prices up high enough to cover the ruinous cost of getting goods here from anywhere. I don’t blame these men. I am sorry for them. I am also sorry for the customer who has to live in these wilds and wastes, and has to reach clear through his pockets, around under a bank counter, or over a mortgage for enough money to buy something on the Darling, or, which is worse, trying to get it cheaper by shipping it himself.

The Wee Water closed for business in 1897 after Skipper was sent to prison for pointing a loaded gun to the head of a police constable.

When Constable Parkes heard that Skipper was carrying a revolver, he confronted him at the pub, and asked him to surrender his weapon. Instead, hot-headed Skipper pointed the loaded revolver at the constable, and threatened to shoot him.

As a result, the publican spent six months in gaol after appearing before the courts in June 1897. The pub closed for business, and although Skipper, after his release, made an attempt to re-open it, the Wee Water never sold beer again.

Skipper worked on various stations in the Tilpa district after his prison time. He went to Bourke in 1935 and remained there until his death at the age of 86 in 1945. His wife died in 1941.

Lucky for Tipla’s hard drinking shearers, there was another pub to keep them lubricated, after the Wee Water closed in 1897.

Tilpa Hotel 1928
The Royal Hotel, Tilpa 1928. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

The Royal Hotel at Tilpa was built by Edward Perrott and leased to George Drew, who gained a license on April 13 1894. It would have been unwise for Perrott to host the pub, as it was the place where the shearers often cashed their cheques, where they drank most of their wages, before returning to the sheds. It wouldn’t have been a good look for Perrott to pay his shearers, and then cash and take their cheques.

Also, another reason Perrott never immediately hosted his pub is that prior to building the Royal, the shearers went on strike, owing to the grazier refusing to build a killing-pen for ration sheep nearer to his men’s hut in 1892.

Perrott eventually summonsed the shearers to return to the clippers through the law courts. He wouldn’t have been a popular publican. He leased his newly built pub to George Drew, and returned to managing his vast sheep station.

The grazier was one of the best known figures in the pastoral industry in Australia during the turn of the 19th century. Born at Haroldston, near Armidale, he sought adventure in the vast spaces of northern Queensland and was a noted horseman.

On four different occasions he overlanded large mobs of cattle, up to 1,000 in each line from Queensland’s Gulf country through to the New England district in NSW.

At the time of his death in 1935 he was the managing director of EM Perrott and Co., Ltd., which held vast cattle stations in NSW and Queensland. But there was also a dark side to the cattleman.

His wife, Isabella was granted a divorce from her husband in 1921 on the grounds of cruelty. Mrs Perrott complained that her husband persisted in flogging her and her two girl wards, as well as a domestic servant, on the bare skin, with a leather strap. The grazier was never far from controversy.

While in Sydney for business in 1932, Perrott, aged 65, went missing for several days before he was found bound and gagged in a Bondi flat.

Perrott said that he had been lured to the flat and held captive until he agreed to sign two cheques for amounts aggregating £15,000.  He was lured firstly to a Darlinghurst flat, after he was told that a man wished to buy one of his Sydney suburban properties, and held captive until he signed the cheques.

Perrott refused and was tied to a chair with rope. He was kept for two days in the Darlinghurst room, and was periodically threatened by the men.

On the fourth day he was taken in a closed car to the Bondi flat, where he said he was ill-fed, and was almost exhausted before he realised that any cheque he signed would have to pass through a Sydney wool agency for counter-signing. He realised his absence by then surely must have been reported to the police, and he told his captors that he would sign the two cheques for £15,000.

The cheques were presented almost at once, but payment was refused, and, police tracked Perrott  to the Bondi flat where they found him still being held captive.

Engineer, Henry Edward Messervy, aged 43, and plantation manager, Allan George Kelly, aged 32, were charged with having with menaces demanded money from Perrott. Messervy was sentenced to five years behind bars, while Kelly received three.

Perrott’s wife ended-up returning to him, and they saw out their finals years together on their Scone property “St Aubyns”. He died in 1935 at the age of 72, and his widow Isabella followed her husband to the grave in 1937.

Tilpa Hotel Tilpa 1930s
The Royal Hotel, Tilpa 1930s. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.
Tilpa Hotel Tilpa 1949 anu
The Royal Hotel, Tilpa 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University.

The freehold of the pub was later bought by William Michael, who also held its license during the late 1920s and 30s.

Terry Everson tells the story of how his father, Roy had to swim the river in the 1950s to get the punt driver out of the pub.

“There was a round bit of steel on a support and a hammer to bang on it to alert the punt driver on the other side the river; but he couldn’t hear it in the pub.”

Amusingly, Roy was prevented entering the pub because he wasn’t wearing a shirt! Terry says this was strange for an outback pub “in those days”.

In the end though, Roy did manage to summon the punt driver.

Three years before the pub’s sign was officially changed from the Royal to the Tilpa, author, John Larkins captured a glimpse of one of the characters who frequented its bar in his 1973 book, The Australian Pub. He wrote:

Jack Robson Tilpa
Jack Robinson at the Tilpa Hotel. Picture: Bruce Howard

THE priest came down from Bourke in the afternoon, and the faithful hastened to polish off their stubbies and follow him into the parlour of the Tilpa Hotel. Their faces were angelic, and few lips bore traces of beery foam. In the bar a few yards away, those who confined their worship to the breweries made a conscious effort not to blaspheme, for the next hour at least.

It was a regular Sunday evening in the Tilpa pub, Back o’ Bourke and south-west a bit – an island in a sea of dust and emus and flies. A stranger came in and nodded when the publican, Stan Garland, asked if he wanted to drink out of a glass. And the locals nudged each other and grinned, and tilted their twenty-six-ounce bottles to their lips.

A sign, BAA, painted on the window announced that this was, indeed, the bar; beyond it lay the flat where all fights were conducted and. Thereafter, absolutely nothing for one hundred miles west to the old opal settlement of White Cliffs. And on the wall of the bar, a poem:

This wonderful love of a beautiful maid,

The love of a staunch, true man,

The love of a baby unafraid,

Have existed since life began.

But the greatest loves,

The love of loves,

Even greater than that of a mother,

Is the passionate, tender, and infinite love,

Of one drunken bum for another.

Stan Garland said: “We always have church in the parlour, and the priests and brothers come from Bourke or Wilcannia. When it’s over, the priests join the lads in the bar – for a glass of orange juice.” And he winked.

We’re waiting for Tilpa’s living legend to make his appearance and finally we are rewarded. A tall, old man, the great Jack Robinson, who swam his horse three miles through the 1970 floods just to get his brawny hands of the last two stubbies in Tilpa. It appears he is shy.

“Nah, I’m not so tough. Why there was one bloke here, I remember. He was diggin’ a well on the other side of the Darlin’ when it collapsed and broke his leg. So he climbed out, hitched his horse to his dray and drove into the pub.

“It was the mornin’, and someone said: ‘What are you doin’ in here so early?’

“’I broke me leg.’


“’I’ll ‘ave a whisky.’

“So he finished his whisky and goes over to see the Bush Nurse, but she wouldn’t set it. It was a real bad break. When you’d hit his knee, the leg’d swing loose. The Bush Nurse reckoned it was too hard for her to fix, an’ anyhow, he shouldn’t have gone to the pub before goin’ to see her. So he went out the back and got an old kerosene case. Remember them? Anyway, he broke it up and set the leg himself, and we all had a few beers, although we didn’t make him shout that day.

“He was the toughest man I’ve ever seen.”

Old Jack himself is regarded with some awe in an area where even the women lift bags of wheat. When the Darling burst its banks in 1970 and licked around the kitchen door of the pub, he was a few miles out of toen at his shack and it occurred to him he’d like a beer. In fact, he’d love one. So he saddled his horse Kelly and sallied forth, licking his parched lips. They came to the flood water and for seven miles they walked through it until finally the game steed had to swim with Jack still astride him.

“Then suddenly he was fightin’ for the bottom. He was sinkin’ and blowin’ bubbles out of his nostrils so then I reckoned it was time to hop off. I swam the last mile meself, and Kelly made it on his own. I got to the pub, and they’d all shot through so I drank the last two stubbies I could find. And me and Kelly swam home.”

The Royal Hotel, Tilpa, 1987. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

I last visited the Tilpa pub in 1987. The publican at the time explained how the shearers, along with a steadily growing tourist trade, were his bread and butter in the remote region.

Originally from Wollongong, he had had the license of the pub less than 12 months when he experienced his first encounter with the big-drinking shearers.

The pub had been closed for hours, and mine host was already snuggly under his bed sheets when he heard a truck pull-up outside. A mob of rowdy shearers, after a long stint working out at a nearby station, had arrived, cashed-up and thirsty.

Over a beer at the bar, he told me how nothing would have prepared him for such a greeting to running a bush-pub. It was like the army had arrived, with dozens of shearers demanding the pub to re-open by banging their hands and fists on the outside walls of the mostly corrugated iron clad pub.

“What else was a bloke do? I opened up and they quickly filled the bar, eventually drinking the place dry.” 

The Tilpa pub continues to trade on the banks of the Darling River today, and is considered one of the last remaining true bush pubs in Australia. Grown from a river boat trade along the Darling River, the pub is the heart of Tilpa and a favourite attraction to both travellers and locals.

royal hotel tilpa inside bar
The public bar of the Tilpa Hotel. Picture: Tilpa Hotel Facebook Page.


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